Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, sat down with The Post’s Lally Weymouth on Monday in Kiev to discuss events in southeastern Ukraine. Excerpts:
Q. What is the status of the several journalists reportedly kidnapped today in the southeast?
A. The journalists were already released.
All of them?
As far as I know, all of them. In any case, we understand that this zone in Slovyansk is where the terrorists are active, so when a journalist enters there, he or she should realize very well that there is a risk. [Separatists] are also shooting peaceful citizens.
Do you think the Russians will actually release the [government] buildings, as they said they would in last week’s Geneva meeting? How do you see the situation evolving?
Russia cannot take over this region because Russia doesn’t have the overwhelming support of the citizens living there. Russia is taking advantage of the depressed condition of the local economy of these regions. During the last four years, [former Ukrainian president Viktor] Yanukovych and the Party of Regions brought that part of the country to desperate conditions and the people are poor. And now the Russians are playing this card. Slovyansk and Kramatorsk are among the poorest areas [in] the Donetsk region. But even in spite of that situation, in the city of Kramatorsk [the Russians] do not have the level of support that they expected. We do not behave radically there for one reason.
When you say “radically,” do you mean you don’t fight the terrorists?
We are not acting radically in that region for two reasons. One is we do not want to hurt the peaceful population. And the second reason is we don’t want to turn the population against the central government. But that does not mean it will stay like this forever. There are limits to everything. Tomorrow, the holidays will be finished and the announced Easter truce will be finished.
Then what happens?
We will act.
What will you do?
We will start liberating people from the terrorists. We will start liberating journalists from the terrorists.
Do you mean the journalists who are still captured?
Some journalists are captured. Also the legally elected mayor of Slovyansk city, Nelya Shetpa, was captured. We are going to take full control over the roads, irrespective of the resistance of some groups.
There were two previous warnings by two other ministers that they would take back the occupied buildings within 48 hours, and nothing happened. Do you have the troops and the forces to carry out your orders?
Yes, no doubt We have special troops of the Interior Ministry called Jaguar and Omega. They are special troops trained to carry out such operations. To carry out such operations at the center of the city is dangerous for the population. But we have a priority that the peaceful citizens should not suffer. For example, three days ago in Mariupol we had an attack of terrorists against a military base of the interior forces. We had an attack carried out by 300 or 400 people who were aiming to take over the weapons of this military unit. In that case, the national interior troops used weapons against them without any hesitation. . . . And we have surrounded them. As a result of this, there were three dead people among those who were attacking. Ninety percent of those people had criminal records — they had been in jail or they were involved in committing crimes, and one was wanted by the international police. And two people who were unidentified — most likely they are from Russia. We understood clearly that we were dealing with a group of marginal people who were hired with one very specific purpose: to take over the weapons from the military unit. And that is why we acted in a very aggressive way to stop them.
Mariupol is a strong base of separatism. However, after this operation that we conducted, we observed that the city has become quiet.
Can you say clearly [that] the people occupying these 10 or more towns in the southeast are Russian?
I think that they are Russians. In the city of Slovyansk, one guy involved is a well-known Russian. They are not shy to call each other by their military rank and names during the telephone conversations we are monitoring.
There are about 200 to 400 people who are distributing weapons that they have illegally taken over from our military bases. . . . The degree of robbery on the streets of Slovyansk has reached unbelievable limits. And every day we get new information that people are attacked or injured in Slovyansk.
What about the rumors regarding the attacks on Jews, the distribution of documents saying Jewish people have to register? Did the Russians do it? Did the separatists do it?
In Slovyansk, we have witnessed the repression of the gypsy Roma.
How is it that the document came out saying that if you are Jewish, you must register?
Not documents, but leaflets.
The separatists were distributing them?
Yes, of course.
But not the Russians?
I would not separate them, the separatists and Russians. The separatists do not act individually — they act together with Russians as a joint effort. We — the Interior Ministry and the SBU [Ukraine’s intelligence service] — have given out strict warnings that they will be punished severely.
Tomorrow the Easter holiday will be over, and you say you will clear the roads in the southeast?
I will say that tomorrow anti-terrorist operations will resume. I think all the military people are concentrated on the Russians and activists of the separatist movements in Slovyansk.
Did anything happen on the ground after the Geneva meeting? Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov said the separatists would leave the buildings.
Nothing happened. They have done nothing, and I think they will continue provoking to the end.
Do you feel the United States has done enough to help you? What would you like to see America do?
I think that within the framework of diplomacy, the USA is very actively supportive. If I were a citizen or a member of the Ukrainian parliament, I would ask why have they not brought the 6th American Fleet earlier.
Do you worry about a Russian invasion?
I think no. But I also know that the military troops of Russia exceed the military troops of Ukraine by a hundred times. Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under the guarantees of other countries, including the United States, of the territorial integrity of our country.
Ukraine gave up its weapons in return for the . . . promise that the U.S. and Western Europe and Russia would respect [its] territorial integrity.
Yes. I think that NATO should have made proposals about protecting Ukraine during the time of the seizure of Crimea. What was the most popular theme during the Maidan? The eavesdropped conversation of [U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria] Nuland and [U.S.] Ambassador [Geoffrey] Pyatt. When Nuland became very angry with the E.U. position, and she said “[expletive] the E.U.,” she became the leader of public opinion. If we talk about forming a coalition together with the E.U. and the U.S., people would count on a radical reaction. The political reality is different and I, as a minister, understand that. But the people are waiting for this kind of reaction.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of The Washington Post.